The question is often asked, What is Photography? Ought it to be described either as an art or a science? Many will contend that, setting aside the gum-bichromate and oil processes (in which the photographic image becomes little more than a basis for the work of hand and brush), a photograph is a mere mechanical reproduction from first to last. True it is, that manufacturing enterprise has so simplified each stage and so perfected apparatus that the beginner may produce a passable print, by just pressing a button, and following certain prescribed directions with ready-made solutions. But this does not affect the claim of photography in the hands of its more qualified exponents to a place among the recognised pictorial arts. Art has been defined as nature interpreted by the individual. Like other arts photography has its limitations. But in the selection and arrangement of his subject, variation of exposure, manner of development, etc., there are opportunities for the specialist and even for the genius. Two operators given the same point of view may produce vastly different results, and yet each be meritorious. That there are mechanical operations must be admitted, but throughout they are capable of control and may be influenced to produce the effect which the craftsman has in view. Work of the kind we refer to entails as much judgment, originality, and patience as a water-colour painting and has almost the same conventional restrictions; differing from the latter very little except that copies, by means of the original negative, may be more easily obtained.

On the other hand the photograph need not always be a faithful representation of existing fact. We have known a few heaps of sand on a kitchen table, with the artful aid of flour dredger, some moss, and a toy chalet, become a very characteristic example of Swiss Alpine scenery when interpreted through the camera. An ingenious piece of apparatus, called a duplicator, enables the plate to be exposed in two successive portions with very startling consequences. We do not feel justified in deciding that there is no such thing as a genuine "spirit" photograph : but experts seem unable to devise any test which cannot be evaded by those who are bent on proving that these manifestations are not supernatural in character. The photographs submitted in evidence by the two contending parties in litigation about "ancient lights" have been known to differ considerably as regards the apparent proportion of adjacent buildings. All these may be deliberate sophistications. With the best intentions the photographer will sometimes find that his result does not convey an exact idea of his subject; and that indeed instruments of precision and a worker of scientific knowledge are required in order to obtain accuracy of this description.

No doubt it is its facilities for the reproduction of originals with accuracy and minute detail that render photography invaluable as the handmaid of science and nearly all the arts. And on this side it becomes itself a science of the first order, levying contributions on the higher departments of chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Just as the constructor may be an architect or an engineer, so the art photographer and the photo-mechanic stand side by side. We are apt to depreciate the photo-mechanical worker because his productions are destined to be multiplied and sold at the cheapest prices; they are the copies of another's original. Even the oil painter or the artist in black and white hardly realises the science as well as the skill involved in the processes, reproducing with such fidelity brush marks and pencil lines which were aforetime travestied by wood-engravers and lithographers. The power to enlarge or reduce a subject in more exact proportion than the human artificer can possibly attempt; to rule, for instance, the lines of a glass screen to the fineness of upwards of 1/1000 of an inch, whereas mechanical instruments have failed to reach 1/400:: these are -triumphs only to be understood at their true value in the workshop or the laboratory.

In the more popular applications of photography the evil and the good are intermingled. The vulgar and tasteless picture-postcard is multiplied as well as the masterpieces of Raphael and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Each man's taste is ministered to impartially. The million find an efficient substitute for what was once the luxury of the rich and cultured. No age can boast the possession of more portrait-painters than can be counted on the fingers, and their works fetch a high price; the poorest can procure a photograph recalling in some way the features of the loved ones who have gone to distant lands, or into the unknown; the lineaments of the criminal flying from justice are scattered abroad so that he can find no corner to escape recognition. The hand-camera fiend invades our privacy everywhere; nothing is sacred in his eyes. But the same much-abused instrument gives the city toiler a delightful occupation for his winter evenings, when he finishes off and arranges his little collection. Artless and uninteresting most of them may seem to the superior critic; but they are to their owner a priceless record of his travels, replete with pleasant memories of rambles on the breezy moors, or by the sunny sea-shore. And they may prove the prelude to better things. Perchance he will specialise in the study of some branch of art or natural history as he acquires the habits of observation which photography inevitably stimulates in every man of good will. Not long ago we listened with the greatest interest to a lecture on the habits of the spider given in a rural camera club by a jobbing gardener. While photographing autumn flowers for mere amusement he had suddenly discovered the optical illusion which renders at least half a spider's web always invisible to the argus-eyed fly. This set him thinking, with results by which his audience profited exceedingly.

In short, the province of photography is too comprehensive for definition. It is all things to all men. According to the individual it may acquire the spaciousness of true art, will submit to the faithful service of accurate record, or, yet again, hazard its reputation on the chance pressure of a button. Better still, we may describe it as a bond of fellowship, restoring those truer conditions which prevailed among the mediaeval craftsmen, when the fine arts were not separated from the higher mechanical arts, nor were those who practised them. And so we must leave it, hoping that our readers' ambition is to attach themselves to one or other of the two earlier classes, which, each in their own way, promote their own edification and the advantage of their fellow men.

The Park Row Building, New York.

The Park Row Building, New York.

Alvin L. Coburn.